Words Matter

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It seems rather insane when I read those two words in print or hear them broadcast around the world.  It’s insane because those two words are repeated constantly regarding the behavior of adults from all walks of life.  It’s become common place for us to utter words and phrases that retard actual communication. Where does it all start?  We think we’re being concise or polite but are we?  We’re actually failing ourselves, those we represent and, most of all, our intended audience.

I gave those questions some thought and concluded that understanding that our words matter begins long before we become lawyers or doctors, reporters or cable news analysts, politicians, entertainers or public figures.  My answer – we begin our relationship with language as infants.  Those of us with children and grandchildren know the routine all too well.

We coo, we talk and cuddle.  We hold, hug and kiss.  Our words help form lifelong bonds.  As soon as those darling infants begin to crawl and pull themselves up every chance they get, we begin teaching boundaries.  Then there’s the fork in the road.  Where we begin to make choices that will define how they use their words.

Benefit of the doubt – an acceptance that a person is truthful or innocent if the opposite cannot be proved – Oxford Dictionaries

By the time they’re teens, children have adopted the use of phrases that have little bearing on the messages they try to communicate.  That’s when words begin to matter less.  Entering the workforce as young adults they begin navigating through life being comfortable with little or no clarity in our language.  Can words matter if there is no certainty when we speak?

One day each month I spend roughly two, sometimes three hours with a diverse group of men and women serving on a local non-profit board of directors.  I do a lot of listening . . . and a lot of reading.  Because we provide oversight and develop policy for the organization, it is important that our every utterance, every document is clear.

It came as quite a surprise when, almost immediately, I noticed that clarity took on a different complexion when power entered the picture.  The executive officers spoke with such ambiguity that, at times, it seemed I was being asked to disregard any logical intreptation of the words coming out of their mouths.  At other times I was shocked at the venom and vitriol when discussion required clarification of a point or if there was any opposition to the leadership’s position.  Words no longer mattered.  Clear, honest communication of ideas was lost. For them, the end justified the means. For me, the means justified my end.

As I considered my exit from this monthly gathering, several common phrases came to mind that warranted a closer look.  So I searched for their meanings.  For instance, what do we actually mean when we say  “give him the benefit of the doubt” or my favorite – “it is what it is”?

It is what it is” is an admission that the problem is too hard – Andrew Steadman 

More and more we navigate through life being comfortable with little or no clarity in our language.  Simply put, many of us become complacent just to avoid conflict.  But can our words really matter if there is no certainty . . . if we believe in a phrase like “it is what it is”?  Army Infantry officer and leadership expert Andrew Steadman addressed our fascination with this phrase for Inc. magazine back in 2015.  Steadman said that use of this phrase “. . . abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat.”

In my search, I also found Natalie Lui’s blog about benefit of the doubt. Something she wrote further supported my belief in a simple approach to relationships – belief what you see and hear. Lui wrote that she has “. . . wrestled with the uncertainty that can come with either not being able to take a good reading of your gut or that comes with knowing that if you accept what you see, that you may have to take action or acknowledge certain things.” That is exactly where I found myself. It was imperative that I follow my gut, take action and not allow the uncertainty to grow.

Here’s where I struggle.  Because so little is clear when we communicate, too many of us are willing to settle. We pretend things that make us uncomfortable either didn’t happen (i.e. give the benefit of the doubt) or we explain our actions (or failure to act) as out of our control because the situation is what it is. I have always believed that everything in life is what we make it and I have never believed that there is any real benefit if I have any doubt about your intentions.

While I don’t assume there’s something nefarious afoot simply because I don’t agree or don’t like something, I won’t spend much time over-analyzing the situation.  I trust me. My words matter because they are clear and honest. I want you to know who I am so our every interaction is what we make it and there is no doubt where we are heading together.